As you go through life, unexpected things happen that you never forget. Usually these are things that you hear about on the news or, these days, through social media. Rarely are you an eye witness to something that stays with you for the rest of your life.
Easily the most unforgettable event of my life happened 50 years ago today. It was about 8:30 on a dreary Friday night. My friend Owen and I, two high school kids, were walking down the main road around our neighborhood in Albany, New York. We were heading toward a retail strip across the street from a hospital. I can’t recall why. Our neighborhood was in the flight path to Albany Airport. Most of the planes back in those days were props so we were very familiar with their sounds and light patterns as they passed overhead.
One of us remarked, “Nothing ever happens around here,” the lament of bored high school kids everywhere, I suppose. Then something happened.
A plane came overhead. There was heavy overcast. From its running lights and loud engine noise, we could tell that the plane was flying lower than normal. Also, the pattern of the lights didn’t seem right. It sounded “off” too. After it passed, Owen and I impulsively ran after it down a side street. A few moments passed then we heard a THUD in the near distance. Owen said, “It crashed.” I said, “No way. We would have heard an explosion.” Owen insisted that it “fucking crashed.” We decided to call a friend whose home was in the general direction of the plane’s path. We ran as fast as we could to the retail strip and used a payphone. He didn’t hear a thing. Then we did. Sirens from every direction. Ambulances, police cars, fire trucks sped past us.
“Gotta go!” We hang up the phone and ran maniacally down a major cross street and stuck out our thumbs. A man in a Mustang pulled over and we sped north. After a half mile we jumped out of the car at a red light. I remember the door wouldn’t close. We apologized and we ran as fast as we could to the west.
After another several blocks we could tell we had overrun the crash sight, because people were streaming towards us. We doubled back and soon came upon the creepiest scene ever. The turboprop plane had crashed into a house. It had speared the house, its tail incongruously standing up next to a car in the driveway. Hundreds of people stood and stared at the rescue and recovery operation. I looked at the large tree and the utility lines directly across the street. They were untouched. Somehow this plane just plunked down into the house. There was no fire. Just a plane in the driveway. Honey, I’m home.
It occurred to me that something was missing from all this insanity. Music. I was in a horror movie without an ominous Max Steiner soundtrack.
Seventeen people died. One was a tenant whose room was directly above the point of impact. The home owner and his family lived; they were watching television when the plane hit and blasted them out of their family room through a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows into the backyard.
They owe their lives to The Partridge Family.
It doesn’t get more surreal than that.